Housing, Racism And The Far-Right

In the fourth part of his features mini-series GLYN ROBBINS examines how the BNP has scapegoated and terrorised minorities for ‘creating’ housing shortages

In September 1993 the neofascist British National Party (BNP) won its first election when Derek Beacon was elected as a local councillor on the Isle of Dogs in Tower Hamlets.

The BNP won by propagating the lie that Bangladeshi families were responsible for an acute shortage of affordable homes.

Beacon lost his seat at the following election on May 5 1994 after a strong anti-racist campaign led by the labour movement.

But the 20th anniversary of the BNP’s defeat is an object lesson in the toxic relationship between housing, racism and the far-right.

The ’80s and ’90s were extraordinary times in London’s docklands.

The closure of the docks meant thousands of job losses, the virtual destruction of a deep-rooted working-class community and the creation of 5,000 acres of derelict land.

Local councils began to redevelop the area and build new homes, but in 1981 the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was imposed by the Thatcher government to “regenerate” the local economy.

A massive building programme of offices, shops, transport links and luxury private housing transformed the Isle of Dogs beyond recognition.

Local residents suffered all the trauma of redevelopment, but reaped few of the benefits.

Some £6 billion of public money was spent, but local unemployment remained high, public amenities poor and council housing scarce.

In its first decade the LDDC oversaw the building of 15,220 new homes, of which 80 per cent were for private sale at prices few could afford.

Between 1984 and 1988 the price of a two-bedroom flat on the island rose from £40,000 to £200,000 at a time when 75 per cent of local households had an income of less than £7,000.

The period also saw the introduction of the right to buy. Some 1,150 council homes were sold on the Isle of Dogs and the local authority received £16 million in receipts, but was prevented by government from spending it to replenish its stock.

Overall the number of council homes in the area fell by 20 per cent.

Those in housing need also had the galling sight of hundreds of homes that had not been bought by property speculators standing empty and acres of undeveloped sites that had been “land banked” by developers.

Inevitably, overcrowding and the waiting list reached crisis proportions, with seven applicants for every new let.

The council did its best to provide housing to those in most need and its records show that available homes were allocated in proportion with the ethnic composition of the area.

These facts didn’t stop the BNP from scapegoating – and terrorising – an ethnic minority for creating the housing shortage. Disgracefully, the local Lib Dems and Labour Party also pandered to such prejudices.

The situation on the Isle of Dogs in the 1990s is a microcosm and prophecy of Britain in 2014.

Widening social inequality, state-sponsored property speculation and a housing waiting list of almost five million are fuelling racism.

Ukip uses crass generalisations to directly link the housing shortage to immigration, perpetuating the myth that new arrivals to Britain automatically get social housing.

With the BNP no longer a force, Ukip is standing candidates in Tower Hamlets in the forthcoming local elections, using the coded racism of a mythologised – white – East End past.

David Cameron answered the Ukip dog whistle in his “something for nothing” speech in March 2013.

So has Ed Miliband, referring to immigration causing “pressures on scarce resources,” while ignoring Labour’s abject 13-year failure to build enough affordable homes.

The link between housing and racism has deep roots. Throughout history there have been attempts to prescribe where people live based on ethnicity, from forced ghettoisation of Jews to apartheid South Africa and “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish” signs in the windows of 1960s Britain.

The Tories fought the 1964 Smethwick election under the slogan “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.” The Lib Dems who controlled Tower Hamlets Council from 1986 to 1994 were condemned by the Commission for Racial Equality for allocating the best council homes to white families.

Access to housing in the US continues to be heavily inscribed by race, as was brutally demonstrated by the killing of Trayvon Martin, perceived as an “outsider” in a “white” area.

Today, as in the Isle of Dogs of the 1990s, neoliberal housing policy, with private developers in control, is creating more divided communities.

Extremes of poverty and wealth are reflected across the country by luxury, gated, private developments that mock those in housing need.

But the Daily Mail and other right-wing bigots continue to blame the affordable housing shortage on “foreigners.”

The facts, from the 2011 census, are summarised by John Perry, former policy director at the Chartered Institute of Housing. “…recent migrants are overwhelmingly dependent on the private rented sector and gain limited access to social housing, but eventually this evens out as longer-term migrants make similar use of social housing to UK-born residents.

“Of the people who first arrived in the UK in the decade to 2011, almost two-thirds are private tenants. Perhaps surprisingly, one in four are already owner-occupiers. The proportion who have become social tenants is only 13 per cent.”

The UN has declared this Saturday International Anti-Racism Day. Backed by the TUC and the Morning Star, a demonstration will rally, appropriately, at Nelson Mandela’s statue in Parliament Square at 11am. But the fight against racism must go hand in hand with the fight for a decent home for all.

From The Morning Star 18.03.14. Report by Glyn Robbins
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